Updated: Oct 26, 2018
"Death… comes unexpectedly."
Those were the words of the Reverend Ford as he delivered his fiery sermon. As he spoke from his elevated pulpit, his booming voice rattled the chandeliers above the congregation. Another Sunday had passed, and with it, another angry sermon on death and the horrors that came with it.
This classic scene from Pollyanna was meant to be funny. But for others, it brings back an almost PTSD like reaction to past church experiences. Many grew up in churches where pounding on the pulpit happened regularly. Back then, pastors spewed angry lines about sin and destruction weekly. With sweat on their brow and spit on their lips, they yelled at others and reminded them that those who did not repent would burn alive in Hell forever.
Hell In America Today
But that is all but gone today. Hollywood has reduced “Fire and Brimstone” to a punchline. Movies and tv shows lampoon the angry preacher who just doesn’t understand why he can’t reach his congregation. Hell has become a joke. Damnation is nothing more than a swear word.
This is also true in the academic world. Scholars study Hell as a literary device. Historians research it as a relic. When I was in High School I was assigned to read Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “In the Hands of An Angry God.” My homework? Analyze how his sermon reflected 18th century attitudes. Hell used to be something to fear. Now, it’s something to laugh at or study in a library. Hell no longer seems real.
Hell in Church
Even churches have turned their backs on Hell. Remembering the fiery preaching of their childhood pastors, pastors today ignore the reality of Hell. They fear they will appear judgmental, or worse, that dreaded word, “legalistic.” As a result, churches proclaim salvation, but never explain what God is providing salvation from. They shout “mercy” but never explain why mercy is needed. Christians share the Gospel in full effect, but leave out why the “Good News” is good at all.
At Bible college, I took an excellent course called “Evangelistic Preaching.” The class focused on developing sermons intended to bring people to a trusting faith in Jesus Christ. It was a great class. But, at the end of the semester, after listening to all my classmates’ sermons, and even my own, I realized something. Every sermon I heard explained the death and resurrection of Jesus. But not a single one mentioned Hell as the reason people needed salvation to begin with.
I started to realize that most of the sermons I hear--even the ones I preached--never mention Hell at all. They talk about grace, faith and Jesus. They talk about sin and death... but never Hell. I couldn’t help wondering. Why, without realizing a future reality of Hell, would people need saving from their sins? What was the point of turning away from a wicked life without the realization it resulted in painful punishment?
"Unhappiness, the New Hell"
I realized that Hell had been replaced with happiness. According to most sermons today, people shouldn’t be saved to avoid Hell. Instead, people should be saved to find peace. Or, to feel fulfilled. Or to be content. This is all true. God provides peace and fulfillment to His children. But He also spares them from destruction. It has reduced Jesus from a Redeemer to a therapist. Salvation now only appears to offer emotional peace to those triggered by a harsh world. When in reality, it provides pardon from a painful world to come.
Why Talk About Hell?
There should be balance in how Christians promote the Gospel. In a world trying to sell people solutions, Christians should present the Gospel as the only thing which can fill an empty heart. But beyond that, Christians must also recognize the severity of sin, and the absolute need to punish what is wicked. Hell does that. For those who reject Jesus, Hell awaits. That shouldn’t be ignored. What soldier would make little of an enemy? What rescuer would ignore the raging waves? Evil must be punished, and people should be told that.
But after they’re told, they should be pointed to the Cross have said to them, “This is where God unleashed His wrath on wickedness.” He unleashed it on the Innocent. He unleashed it on His Son.”
God destroyed the innocent so He could love the guilty. He broke what was Good so He could fix what was bad. Jesus took on the weight of wrath so Hell would no longer be necessary for those who put their trust in Him. Salvation brings healing to the hurt. It provides restoration to the broken. But it also brings pardon to the sentenced. It withholds the punishment reserved for sinners by putting it on Jesus instead.
To make little of Hell is to make little of the sacrifice of Jesus. Salvation is great because the destruction is great. The future pain is real, and coming. But the love of God was also real, and has already come.
Resting in Him,